Do you dream of  making it big on YouTube, posting to an adoring audience every day, and quitting your day job to live off your share of the ad revenue? You might make it big, and you might even have millions of fans. But unless your audience reaches into the tens of millions every month, you probably can't quit your day job.

That sobering truth is the result of elaborate research by Mathias Bärtl, professor at Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany. Bärtl and his team worked hard to come up with a random sample of YouTube channels and calculate how many viewers (and thus how much ad revenue) each might receive. The platform doesn't reveal its formula for calculating ad revenue, which can vary according to several factors, such as which country viewers are watching from. So the estimates here are approximate. But they're still depressing enough to convince any sensible person hoping for a career as a YouTube star to start looking for a Plan B.

Consider:

1. The top 3 percent of YouTube channels get 90 percent of the traffic.

Income inequality is a huge problem in society at large, but it may be even bigger among YouTube partners (as the company calls its content creators who meet the criteria to receive ad revenue). In Bärtl's 2016 sample, the top 3 percent of channels got 90 percent of the viewership, which means that 90 percent of YouTube creators are fighting over the remaining 10 percent. And it's steadily getting worse. In 2015, for instance, the top 3 percent got 86 percent of the views.

2. Even those top 3 percent aren't making a living. 

To get into that rarified top 3 percent of Bärtl's sample, you would have to have more than 1.4 million views per month. Maybe you think you can make it to that level--you'll be posting really great content every day and sharing it with your large social media following. Great plan! But even at 1.4 million views per month, according to Bärtl's research, your average payment from YouTube will amount to less than $17,000 a year. That's based on an estimate of $1 per 1,000 views, which seems reasonable, according to those familiar with YouTube's partner and advertising programs. The company doesn't release its payment formula, but insiders say it can range from a low of $0.25 per 1,000 views to a high of $5 per 1,000 views.

3. To make it into that top 3 percent, you'll have to beat out tens of millions of other YouTubers.

How many? Nobody knows. Even the total number of YouTube partners who qualify for ad revenue isn't published by Google. But just to give you a sense of how many creators are out there for you to compete with, the company does say that YouTubers upload 400 hours of video every minute. 

4. Wait--can't you make a lot of money from sponsored posts?

You can, and for YouTubers who do rake in the big bucks, sponsored posts are an important part of the mix. But before you can really cash in on sponsorships, you need to build up a very large subscriber base. Subscribers are obviously a lot harder to get than views. According to The Economist, influencers with at least 100,000 subscribers on YouTube can get an average of $12,500 for a sponsored post, with payments going up rapidly if you have one million subscribers or more. But those figures refer to endorsements by people who are celebrities in their own right. Someone who's only well known on YouTube might not command that kind of pay.

5. Tell your kids.

You're old enough and wise enough not to plan on a glorious future as a YouTube star? That's great--but if you've got kids, you might want to start gently making them aware of YouTube's economic realities. In a U.K. poll, 1 in 3 children aged 7 to 16 said they hoped to be a full-time YouTuber when they grew up. Only a third as many said they wanted to be a doctor or nurse.

Published on: Feb 28, 2018
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